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Most likely to torment? The almost-popular kids

High school can be hell, filled with cruel cliques bent on tormenting their peers. But the most popular kids aren’t the most aggressive against their classmates, shows a new study.
/ Source: contributor

High school can be hell, filled with cruel cliques bent on tormenting their peers. But the queen bees at top of their social heap aren’t the most abusive against their classmates, according to a study published in the February issue of the American Sociological Review. The most popular kids in school — the top 2 percent of a school’s social hierarchy — are actually the least aggressive, along with those at the bottom.

It's the teens just slightly down from the pinnacle of popularity that give their peers a hard time. Researchers from the University of California, Davis, found that adolescents in the top 98th percentile of the school's social pecking order have an average aggression rate that is 40 percent greater than kids at the top. They also have an aggression rate that is about 30 percent greater than kids at the bottom of the popularity pack.

“The more kids crave popularity, the more aggressive they are,” says co-author of the study, Robert Faris, assistant professor of sociology at UC Davis. Although girls and boys victimize other students at about the same rate, girls are victimized at higher rates, both by boys and (in true “Mean Girls” fashion) by other girls.

The researchers define aggression rate as the number of classmates a student has victimized in the past three months. This victimization included physical abuse like hitting, shoving, and kicking, and verbal abuse like name-calling and making threats. Rumor-mongering and ostracizing kids were also deemed as aggressive behaviors.

Popularity was by determined by the number of times a name was cited when students were asked who their friends were, or in sociological-speak, “how central,” they were to the school’s web of friendships. The researchers predicted a student’s level of aggressiveness during the spring term of the school year and then looked at their status the following fall semester.

Competing for status
According to the results, status increased levels of aggression, but aggression did not increase status. “Basically, I think status increases aggression because with status, kids have more influence,” says Faris. Status may also create a situation in which kids become “more competitive over how much status they can gain."

But there may be some benefits to aggression in terms of status, depending on who is attacked, explains Faris, who says that he was harassed by some older children when he was in grade school, which may have sparked his interest in the connection between power and violence. That victimization profile will be explored in another study.

There is a “possibility” that those kids in the upper echelons of the popularity scale have some different qualities that make them appealing or they may “not (be) disposed to aggressiveness in the first place,” he says. In fact, the researchers suspect that kids at the top might be toppled if they acted aggressively toward their peers, since those acts could signal weakness.

“We really don’t know why they are less aggressive, but we think they simply don’t have a need for it,” Fairs says. “Being kind probably cements their position.”

The study analyzed data from some 3,800 students in the eighth, ninth and 10th grade who participated in The Context of Adolescent Substance Use survey during the 2004-2005 school year. The longitudinal survey included 19 public schools in three rural North Carolina counties.

How the data would play out in larger schools in bigger cities isn’t known. “Smaller environments may have clearer boundaries in terms of cliques or popularity,” explains Daniel Myers, professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame.

The good news is the data showed only about one-third of students exhibited behaviors that could be deemed aggressive. Faris believes that intervention programs should be geared to the bulk of children who don’t participate in aggressive behaviors. “They need to learn to be less approving,” he says. “They’re the ones who give kids status.”

Joan Raymond is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Newsweek, the New York Times, MORE and Woman's Day.